Letters of Two Brides/Chapter XLVIII

Letters of Two Brides by Honore de Balzac
Chapter XLVIII: THE BARONNE DE MACUMER TO THE COMTESSE DE L'ESTORADE

October 15, 1833.

Yes, Renee, it is quite true; you have been correctly informed. I have sold my house, I have sold Chantepleurs, and the farms in Seine-et-Marne, but no more, please! I am neither mad nor ruined, I assure you.

Let us go into the matter. When everything was wound up, there remained to me of my poor Macumer's fortune about twelve hundred thousand francs. I will account, as to a practical sister, for every penny of this.

I put a million in the Three per Cents when they were at fifty, and so I have got an income for myself of sixty thousand francs, instead of the thirty thousand which the property yielded. Then, only think what my life was. Six months of the year in the country, renewing leases, listening to the grumbles of the farmers, who pay when it pleases them, and getting as bored as a sportsman in wet weather. There was produce to sell, and I always sold it at a loss. Then, in Paris, my house represented a rental of ten thousand francs; I had to invest my money at the notaries; I was kept waiting for the interest, and could only get the money back by prosecuting; in addition I had to study the law of mortgage. In short, there was business in Nivernais, in Seine-et-Marne, in Paris—and what a burden, what a nuisance, what a vexing and losing game for a widow of twenty-seven!

Whereas now my fortune is secured on the Budget. In place of paying taxes to the State, I receive from it, every half-year, in my own person, and free from cost, thirty thousand francs in thirty notes, handed over the counter to me by a dapper little clerk at the Treasury, who smiles when he sees me coming!

Supposing the nation went bankrupt? Well, to begin with:

'Tis not mine to see trouble so far from my door.

At the worst, too, the nation would not dock me of more than half my income, so I should still be as well off as before my investment, and in the meantime I shall be drawing a double income until the catastrophe arrives. A nation doesn't become bankrupt more than once in a century, so I shall have plenty of time to amass a little capital out of my savings.

And finally, is not the Comte de l'Estorade a peer of this July semi-republic? Is he not one of those pillars of royalty offered by the "people" to the King of the French? How can I have qualms with a friend at Court, a great financier, head of the Audit Department? I defy you to arraign my sanity! I am almost as good at sums as your citizen king.

Do you know what inspires a woman with all this arithmetic? Love, my dear!

Alas! the moment has come for unfolding to you the mysteries of my conduct, the motives of which have baffled even your keen sight, your prying affection, and your subtlety. I am to be married in a country village near Paris. I love and am loved. I love as much as a woman can who knows love well. I am loved as much as a woman ought to be by the man she adores.

Forgive me, Renee, for keeping this a secret from you and from every one. If your friend evades all spies and puts curiosity on a false track, you must admit that my feeling for poor Macumer justified some dissimulation. Besides, de l'Estorade and you would have deafened me with remonstrances, and plagued me to death with your misgivings, to which the facts might have lent some color. You know, if no one else does, to what pitch my jealousy can go, and all this would only have been useless torture to me. I was determined to carry out, on my own responsibility, what you, Renee, will call my insane project, and I would take counsel only with my own head and heart, for all the world like a schoolgirl giving the slip to her watchful parents.

The man I love possesses nothing but thirty thousand francs' worth of debts, which I have paid. What a theme for comment here! You would have tried to make Gaston out an adventurer; your husband would have set detectives on the dear boy. I preferred to sift him for myself. He has been wooing me now close on two years. I am twenty-seven, he is twenty-three. The difference, I admit, is huge when it is on the wrong side. Another source of lamentation!

Lastly, he is a poet, and has lived by his trade—that is to say, on next to nothing, as you will readily understand. Being a poet, he has spent more time weaving day-dreams, and basking, lizard-like, in the sun, than scribing in his dingy garret. Now, practical people have a way of tarring with the same brush of inconstancy authors, artists, and in general all men who live by their brains. Their nimble and fertile wit lays them open to the charge of a like agility in matters of the heart.

Spite of the debts, spite of the difference in age, spite of the poetry, an end is to be placed in a few days to a heroic resistance of more than nine months, during which he has not been allowed even to kiss my hand, and so also ends the season of our sweet, pure love-making. This is not the mere surrender of a raw, ignorant, and curious girl, as it was eight years ago; the gift is deliberate, and my lover awaits it with such loyal patience that, if I pleased, I could postpone the marriage for a year. There is no servility in this; love's slave he may be, but the heart is not slavish. Never have I seen a man of nobler feeling, or one whose tenderness was more rich in fancy, whose love bore more the impress of his soul. Alas! my sweet one, the art of love is his by heritage. A few words will tell his story.

My friend has no other name than Marie Gaston. He is the illegitimate son of the beautiful Lady Brandon, whose fame must have reached you, and who died broken-hearted, a victim to the vengeance of Lady Dudley —a ghastly story of which the dear boy knows nothing. Marie Gaston was placed by his brother Louis in a boarding-school at Tours, where he remained till 1827. Louis, after settling his brother at school, sailed a few days later for foreign parts "to seek his fortune," to use the words of an old woman who had played the part of Providence to him. This brother turned sailor used to write him, at long intervals, letters quite fatherly in tone, and breathing a noble spirit; but a struggling life never allowed him to return home. His last letter told Marie that he had been appointed Captain in the navy of some American republic, and exhorted him to hope for better days.

Alas! since then three years have passed, and my poor poet has never heard again. So dearly did he love his brother, that he would have started to look for him but for Daniel d'Arthez, the well-known author, who took a generous interest in Marie Gaston, and prevented him carrying out his mad impulse. Nor was this all; often would he give him a crust and a corner, as the poet puts it in his graphic words.

For, in truth, the poor lad was in terrible straits; he was actually innocent enough to believe—incredible as it seems—that genius was the shortest road to fortune, and from 1828 to 1833 his one aim has been to make a name for himself in letters. Naturally his life was a frightful tissue of toil and hardships, alternating between hope and despair. The good advice of d'Arthez could not prevail against the allurements of ambition, and his debts went on growing like a snowball. Still he was beginning to come into notice when I happened to meet him at Mme. d'Espard's. At first sight he inspired me, unconsciously to himself, with the most vivid sympathy. How did it come about that this virgin heart has been left for me? The fact is that my poet combines genius and cleverness, passion and pride, and women are always afraid of greatness which has no weak side to it. How many victories were needed before Josephine could see the great Napoleon in the little Bonaparte whom she had married.

Poor Gaston is innocent enough to think he knows the measure of my love! He simply has not an idea of it, but to you I must make it clear; for this letter, Renee, is something in the nature of a last will and testament. Weigh well what I am going to say, I beg of you.

At this moment I am confident of being loved as perhaps not another women on this earth, nor have I a shadow of doubt as to the perfect happiness of our wedded life, to which I bring a feeling hitherto unknown to me. Yes, for the first time in my life, I know the delight of being swayed by passion. That which every woman seeks in love will be mine in marriage. As poor Felipe once adored me, so do I now adore Gaston. I have lost control of myself, I tremble before this boy as the Arab hero used to tremble before me. In a word, the balance of love is now on my side, and this makes me timid. I am full of the most absurd terrors. I am afraid of being deserted, afraid of becoming old and ugly while Gaston still retains his youth and beauty, afraid of coming short of his hopes!

And yet I believe I have it in me, I believe I have sufficient devotion and ability, not only to keep alive the flame of his love in our solitary life, far from the world, but even to make it burn stronger and brighter. If I am mistaken, if this splendid idyl of love in hiding must come to an end—an end! what am I saying?—if I find Gaston's love less intense any day than it was the evening before, be sure of this, Renee, I should visit my failure only on myself; no blame should attach to him. I tell you now it would mean my death. Not even if I had children could I live on these terms, for I know myself, Renee, I know that my nature is the lover's rather than the mother's. Therefore before taking this vow upon my soul, I implore you, my Renee, if this disaster befall me, to take the place of mother to my children; let them be my legacy to you! All that I know of you, your blind attachment to duty, your rare gifts, your love of children, your affection for me, would help to make my death—I dare not say easy —but at least less bitter.

The compact I have thus made with myself adds a vague terror to the solemnity of my marriage ceremony. For this reason I wish to have no one whom I know present, and it will be performed in secret. Let my heart fail me if it will, at least I shall not read anxiety in your dear eyes, and I alone shall know that this new marriage-contract which I sign may be my death warrant.

I shall not refer again to this agreement entered into between my present self and the self I am to be. I have confided it to you in order that you might know the full extent of your responsibilities. In marrying I retain full control of my property; and Gaston, while aware that I have enough to secure a comfortable life for both of us, is ignorant of its amount. Within twenty-four hours I shall dispose of it as I please; and in order to save him from a humiliating position, I shall have stock, bringing in twelve thousand francs a year, assigned to him. He will find this in his desk on the eve of our wedding. If he declined to accept, I should break off the whole thing. I had to threaten a rupture to get his permission to pay his debts.

This long confession has tired me. I shall finish it the day after to-morrow; I have to spend to-morrow in the country.

October 20th.

I will tell you now the steps I have taken to insure secrecy. My object has been to ward off every possible incitement to my ever-wakeful jealousy, in imitation of the Italian princess, who, like a lioness rushing on her prey, carried it off to some Swiss town to devour in peace. And I confide my plans to you because I have another favor to beg; namely, that you will respect our solitude and never come to see us uninvited.

Two years ago I purchased a small property overlooking the ponds of Ville d'Avray, on the road to Versailles. It consists of twenty acres of meadow land, the skirts of a wood, and a fine fruit garden. Below the meadows the land has been excavated so as to make a lakelet of about three acres in extent, with a charming little island in the middle. The small valley is shut in by two graceful, thickly-wooded slopes, where rise delicious springs that water my park by means of channels cleverly disposed by my architect. Finally, they fall into the royal ponds, glimpses of which can be seen here and there, gleaming in the distance. My little park has been admirably laid out by the architect, who has surrounded it by hedges, walls, or ha-has, according to the lie of the land, so that no possible point of view may be lost.

A chalet has been built for me half-way up the hillside, with a charming exposure, having the woods of the Ronce on either side, and in front a grassy slope running down to the lake. Externally the chalet is an exact copy of those which are so much admired by travelers on the road from Sion to Brieg, and which fascinated me when I was returning from Italy. The internal decorations will bear comparison with those of the most celebrated buildings of the kind.

A hundred paces from this rustic dwelling stands a charming and ornamental house, communicating with it by a subterranean passage. This contains the kitchen, and other servants' rooms, stables, and coach-houses. Of all this series of brick buildings, the facade alone is seen, graceful in its simplicity, against a background of shrubbery. Another building serves to lodge the gardeners and masks the entrance to the orchards and kitchen-gardens.

The entrance gate to the property is so hidden in the wall dividing the park from the wood as almost to defy detection. The plantations, already well grown, will, in two or three years, completely hide the buildings, so that, except in winter, when the trees are bare, no trace of habitation will appear to the outside world, save only the smoke visible from the neighboring hills.

The surroundings of my chalet have been modeled on what is called the King's Garden at Versailles, but it has an outlook on my lakelet and island. The hills on every side display their abundant foliage—those splendid trees for which your new civil list has so well cared. My gardeners have orders to cultivate new sweet-scented flowers to any extent, and no others, so that our home will be a fragrant emerald. The chalet, adorned with a wild vine which covers the roof, is literally embedded in climbing plants of all kinds—hops, clematis, jasmine, azalea, copaea. It will be a sharp eye which can descry our windows!

The chalet, my dear, is a good, solid house, with its heating system and all the conveniences of modern architecture, which can raise a palace in the compass of a hundred square feet. It contains a suite of rooms for Gaston and another for me. The ground-floor is occupied by an ante-room, a parlor, and a dining room. Above our floor again are three rooms destined for the nurseries. I have five first-rate horses, a small light coupe, and a two-horse cabriolet. We are only forty-minutes' drive from Paris; so that, when the spirit moves us to hear an opera or see a new play, we can start after dinner and return the same night to our bower. The road is a good one, and passes under the shade of our green dividing wall.

My servants—cook, coachman, groom, and gardeners, in addition to my maid—are all very respectable people, whom I have spent the last six months in picking up, and they will be superintended by my old Philippe. Although confident of their loyalty and good faith, I have not neglected to cultivate self-interest; their wages are small, but will receive an annual addition in the shape of a New Year's Day present. They are all aware that the slightest fault, or a mere suspicion of gossiping, might lose them a capital place. Lovers are never troublesome to their servants; they are indulgent by disposition, and therefore I feel that I can reckon on my household.

All that is choice, pretty, or decorative in my house in the Rue du Bac has been transported to the chalet. The Rembrandt hangs on the staircase, as though it were a mere daub; the Hobbema faces the Rubens in his study; the Titian, which my sister-in-law Mary sent me from Madrid, adorns the boudoir. The beautiful furniture picked up by Felipe looks very well in the parlor, which the architect has decorated most tastefully. Everything at the chalet is charmingly simple, with the simplicity which can't be got under a hundred thousand francs. Our ground-floor rests on cellars, which are built of millstone and embedded in concrete; it is almost completely buried in flowers and shrubs, and is deliciously cool without a vestige of damp. To complete the picture, a fleet of white swans sail over my lake!

Oh! Renee, the silence which reigns in this valley would bring joy to the dead! One is awakened by the birds singing or the breeze rustling in the poplars. A little spring, discovered by the architect in digging the foundations of the wall, trickles down the hillside over silvery sand to the lake, between two banks of water-cress, hugging the edge of the woods. I know nothing that money can buy to equal it.

May not Gaston come to loathe this too perfect bliss? I shudder to think how complete it is, for the ripest fruits harbor the worms, the most gorgeous flowers attract the insects. Is it not ever the monarch of the forest which is eaten away by the fatal brown grub, greedy as death? I have learned before now that an unseen and jealous power attacks happiness which has reached perfection. Besides, this is the moral of all your preaching, and you have been proved a prophet.

When I went, the day before yesterday, to see whether my last whim had been carried out, tears rose to my eyes; and, to the great surprise of my architect, I at once passed his account for payment.

"But, madame," he exclaimed, "your man of business will refuse to pay this; it is a matter of three hundred thousand francs." My only reply was to add the words, "To be paid without question," with the bearing of a seventeenth-century Chaulieu.

"But," I said, "there is one condition to my gratitude. No human being must hear from you of the park and buildings. Promise me, on your honor, to observe this article in our contract—not to breathe to a soul the proprietor's name."

Now, can you understand the meaning of my sudden journeys, my mysterious comings and goings? Now, do you know whither those beautiful things, which the world supposes to be sold, have flown? Do you perceive the ultimate motive of my change of investment? Love, my dear, is a vast business, and they who would succeed in it should have no other. Henceforth I shall have no more trouble from money matters; I have taken all the thorns out of my life, and done my housekeeping work once for all with a vengeance, so as never to be troubled with it again, except during the daily ten minutes which I shall devote to my old major-domo Philippe. I have made a study of life and its sharp curves; there came a day when death also gave me harsh lessons. Now I want to turn all this to account. My one occupation will be to please him and love him, to brighten with variety what to common mortals is monotonously dull.

Gaston is still in complete ignorance. At my request he has, like myself, taken up his quarters at Ville d'Avray; to-morrow we start for the chalet. Our life there will cost but little; but if I told you the sum I am setting aside for my toilet, you would exclaim at my madness, and with reason. I intend to take as much trouble to make myself beautiful for him every day as other women do for society. My dress in the country, year in, year out, will cost twenty-four thousand francs, and the larger portion of this will not go in day costumes. As for him, he can wear a blouse if he pleases! Don't suppose that I am going to turn our life into an amorous duel and wear myself out in devices for feeding passion; all that I want is to have a conscience free from reproach. Thirteen years still lie before me as a pretty woman, and I am determined to be loved on the last day of the thirteenth even more fondly than on the morrow of our mysterious nuptials. This time no cutting words shall mar my lowly, grateful content. I will take the part of servant, since that of mistress throve so ill with me before.

Ah! Renee, if Gaston has sounded, as I have, the heights and depths of love, my happiness is assured! Nature at the chalet wears her fairest face. The woods are charming; each step opens up to you some fresh vista of cool greenery, which delights the soul by the sweet thoughts it wakens. They breathe of love. If only this be not the gorgeous theatre dressed by my hand for my own martyrdom!

In two days from now I shall be Mme. Gaston. My God! is it fitting a Christian so to love mortal man?

"Well, at least you have the law with you," was the comment of my man of business, who is to be one of my witnesses, and who exclaimed, on discovering why my property was to be realized, "I am losing a client!"

And you, my sweetheart (whom I dare no longer call my loved one), may you not cry, "I am losing a sister?"

My sweet, address when you write in future to Mme. Gaston, Poste Restante, Versailles. We shall send there every day for letters. I don't want to be known to the country people, and we shall get our provisions from Paris. In this way I hope we may guard the secret of our lives. Nobody has been seen in the place during the years spent in preparing our retreat; and the purchase was made in the troubled period which followed the revolution of July. The only person who has shown himself here is the architect; he alone is known, and he will not return.

Farewell. As I write this word, I know not whether my heart is fuller of grief or joy. That proves, does it not, that the pain of losing you equals my love for Gaston?